December 5, 2011 | BITE: My Journal

Todd Plays the Plaza

Just call is Todd English at the Plaza Food Hall now. Photo: Steven Richter
Just call is Todd English at the Plaza Food Hall now. Photo: Steven Richter

       It’s Monday after Thanksgiving. The Plaza Food Halls have nearly doubled in size almost overnight. Indeed, they're being “rebranded” as Todd English at the Plaza Food Hall and we’re meeting a culinary innocent from Woodstock to check it out.  Will she love the concept, “Everything you ever wanted to eat but were too fat to imagine all on one menu,” as we do?  This appealing mini food mall in the Plaza subterranean concourse became our supper spot before or after a movie at The Paris, when it first launched in June 2010. Then savvy tourists and possessive New Yorkers crowded us out.  We took our hunger elsewhere.

We had a few minutes to marvel at Bergdorf’s Christmas windows. Photo: Gael Greene

       We’re early tonight so I have the taxi drop us at Bergdorf’s to feast on their wild, occasionally demonic Christmas windows – as intoxicating an aperitif as a perfect Negroni. But we have to run. I’ve promised the Road Food Warrior we’ll get home in time for the Giants game. At 7:30 the place is almost empty, except for the hotel’s publicist, Susan Magrino, who spots me from her counter perch.  She’s eating early too because her husband’s a Giants fan.

A pasta cook cuts the dough before our eyes in the new annex. Photo: Steven Richter

       I ask the hostess for three stools at a counter corner in the new 212-seat annex where we can watch chefs cooking.  She settles us all by ourselves at what is clearly Pasta Central, handsome in the architect Jeffrey Beer's original design of marble, steel and pale wood, with tinted strands of noodles hanging out to dry and a young woman on a step-stool feeding dough into a giant machine. Big fat green macaroni tumble onto her baking sheet. She tosses and caresses them, a bit dubiously, I imagine.

It’s not often you see a star chef actually cooking except on TV. Photo: Steven Richter

       Suddenly, the matinée idol himself, Todd English, materializes, as if pulled from Magrino’s tote bag, in short-sleeve chef whites – “Plaza Food Halls” (pre-rebranding) embroidered on his jacket (lest he forget which of his multiple turfs he is on). “It’s the SuperNova, the first one in America,” he boasts, caressing the Maserati of pasta extruders.

The flatbread crust is too fragile to hold up to the fabulous topping. Photo: Steven Richter

       He glances at the swampy remains of our flatbread pizza – the Bronx Bomber – a luscious smudge of roasted tomato sauce, caramelized onion, mozzarella and pepperoni – on a crust that collapses into a premature sog.  He looks away.

Speck, baby artichoke, mint and pecorino accent the lobster fettucine. Photo: Gael Greene

       It’s hard to nudge Steven from his favorites here. The tuna two ways sushi roll with spicy Big Eye tuna and avocado ($18 with $2 extra to add a brown rice option) has never failed us.  Not like the bucatini amatriciana, which was scant and stingy on our anonymous last visit. Not tonight of course. We’re on the radar. The big fat noodles are almost al dente.  There’s just enough garlicky sauce.

       The chef, making an impressive reality show of working, sends us a bowl of rigatoni tossed with “Todd’s old school veal Bolognese with pecorino,” a rich and savory jumble that reminds me again that English is Italian (alas, the restaurant of that name failed.) This meaty pasta could become a must for me, especially knowing I can order a half portion.

I recall the lamb was rare last time and the gyros had more saucy oomph. Photo: Gael Greene

       Is the menu overwhelmingly omnivoresque?  Yes, yes, yes. It takes forever to scan, and I find myself wanting everything – pork ramen, handmade dumplings, lobster hush puppies, baked oysters with caviar crème fraîche, kimchi pork sliders, or just fresh-shucked littleneck clams at $2 each. The one time I had them, the three little TE sliders were perfect ($10 then, now $14). What torture. The pizza keeps up our strength as we consider and debate.

       By the time we’ve reached a consensus and our server returns for the third time, I forget what I am determined to try. I go for mini lamb gyros with yogurt tahini and cucumber noodles in parchment paper, the thin lamb slices not rare as asked, not as smartly seasoned as remembered.  My request for a half order of grilled lobster salad produces fresh lobster salad – an entirely different animal. Let’s be frank, I can’t promise yours will have quite this much lobster.

As an outed critic I may be getting more lobster than you will.  Photo: Steven Richter

       The lobster fettuccine is busy too, maybe over-endowed with artichoke heart, speck, mint and pecorino – but delicious in its excess and enough to feed four.  Liquid offerings are a hit parade too: beer, cocktails, Scotch, “Bubbles,” wines by the glass – a six ounce pour, some big name California reds by the bottle -- (but no non-alcoholic beer). The $6 red at opening is now $12. “We’ll be serving small carafes,” English says.

The Sunday crowd builds as we head home to watch the Giants. Photo: Steven Richter

       First down fast-approaching, we decide to skip dessert. Now even the new back room is filling up. Presumably demand will expand to fill the added seats. Given the rebranding, I’d like to believe English will be around often – maybe he’ll even taste the flatbread and insist on a crisper, sturdier crust. Presumably Mike Suppa, his strong right hand at Olives for seven years, will run the show.  (He was nowhere to be seen on our recent visit before the expansion.)

       It’s no accident customers must pass the sweets counter as they exit. I’m drawn by lush little tarts and chocolate bars. “Wouldn’t you like a pastry to take home?” I ask our guest hoping she’ll say yes so I can get one too.  She’s too polite. Or maybe too disciplined. Bitch. “I don’t know how you do it,” she marvels. “Tasting so many things.” The Giants fan is grumbling.  We hit the escalator.

1 West 59th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Concourse level. 212 986 9260. Sunday through Thursday 11 am to 10 pm, to 11 pm Friday and Saturday.


Capizzi: All in the Family

Capizzi chef wields his pizza paddle.

       Yet another pizza place. But I liked the heritage feel of Joseph Calcagno invoking memories of his parents’ and grandparents’ Brooklyn pizza shops and his Nonna’s kitchen in Capizzi Pizza and Wine Bar.  And the two of us with our friend Barry are in a pizza mood.

Capizzi is a friendly oasis on Ninth at the back door to Port Authority

       My hopes flag as we pull up on Ninth Avenue across from Port Authority, possibly one of the skuzzier stretches of Manhattan. Hell’s Kitchen indeed. But already settled inside, our pal is excited.  “Look at that great oven and the white tile,” he says. “It’s a serious place. And doesn’t the pizza at the next table look good?” He seems equally taken by a duo of young women at a window table.  Wine deals on small blackboards, bottles standing sentry around the room,  hanging peppers and an ancient telly being used as a service station stir the mix.

I wonder what the Sicilian ancestors would make of apple sticks in the salad.

       The waiter doesn’t get it. But a roaming manager overhearing does. We need lemon halves to cut the sweetness of the house made lemonade. Still the waiter keeps pouring, no charge, as we finish off the first-rate arugula salad – a big toss with tomatoes, olives, onion and sticks of green apple.

Not worth a detour but still, the pizza is better than most.

       We study the “House Specialty Pizzas” - most either without cheese or without sauce.  There are also do-it-yourself options to pile on a 12 inch $10.95 Margherita (large pies are for takeout only), but “Capizzi’s Combinations,” $16.95, are more appealing, no need to think.  We share #1, pepperoni with portabellos, and #2, sausage with sweet roasted peppers.  I’d like the onions caramelized, but the crusts are blistered with a mellow flavor, though they might be crisper. I order a quartino of Nero D’Avolo for $8.50, wanting to drink Sicilian because Capizzi, the birthplace of Calcagno’s mother and grandparents is in the province of Messina in Sicily.

Wine bottles stand guard around the room at Capizzi.

       I long to try the Messina special pie too, with San Marzano tomatoes and eggplant, but Barry votes for a five cheese number – mozzarella, provolone, taleggio, pecorino and reggiano with an add-on of sausage, a combo that could challenge the arteries of anyone half our age.  I carve off a prudent eighth. Hmmmm. Not worth dying for, but I don’t mind a few Tums moments.

       Two men enter, warily looking around, and settle across the room from us.  One is huge. I immediately regret the five cheeses number. “I want to see his pizza,” says Barry. As we settle the check, $84.65 without tip, I overhear the two newcomers speaking with Australian accents.

A restaurant app guided these two Australians to Capizzi.

       “How did you find this place?” I ask. The big man grins. “We wanted to eat nearby and this came up on our Trip Advisor app.” 

Is this little Joseph Calcagno with his father or papa with grandpa?

       Sure enough, Capizzi may be newish, but it’s already ranked #8 on out of 5,929 restaurants in New York City, with 129 reviews. Could be the voice of the people. Could be marketing smarts by Calcagno. And he’s not taking any chances overseas customers might be confused about tipping. The menu sports a box of  “Information for our International Guests about Gratuities.”

547 Ninth Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets. 212 695 6900 Monday through Thursday

Cafe Fiorello